Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stuck (Sort of) in the Middle with You and Almost Everyone Else: Thoughts About "Middle" at Gallery 72, Atlanta

The ordinary-seeming concept called “middle” is a major puzzle.

For one thing, no matter what the dictionary suggests, “middle” is often almost the opposite of “center.” The center is ordinarily a place of honor or at least of organization. Even in ordinary usage, one wouldn’t normally say that the sun is the middle of the solar system. In the history of religions, “Center” is a word to conjure with, even in Meister Eckhart’s (and/or others’) definition of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. “God is a Middle”? Not so much. Postmodern philosophy sought to decenter Eurocentrism; less disturbed by terms and operating assumptions that happened de facto to be in the middle of things.

The middle term of a syllogism gets a certain amount of can’t get from Point A to Point B without it. But in general, middle-ness is in-between-ness, a point midway on the way to somewhere else or from somewhere else. The middle is also, as is increasingly recognized, the midpoint in a gulf separating two established terms. There is a continuum, or a spectrum, but we don’t know that, not yet anyway: out there in the void that ought to be a bridge, comes the interstitial middle term.

So it makes sense, in an era celebrating neither-nor more than both-and, and the provisional more than the firmly established, that a show called “Middle” should have been mounted at Atlanta’s Gallery 72 courtesy of curator Candice Greathouse.

Unfortunately, as I just now implied, we are in a bit of a muddle over “middle.” I am not entirely sure that Greathouse’s show, which runs through February 15, has cleared up the issues of “inbetweenness and potentiality through material and process” that she says the show addresses.

That definition manages to narrow “middle” down a little. We are looking, we might think, at formalism, at the roots of provisional painting, perhaps. But we would be wrong in thinking that, or at least I think so.

For one thing, there is the almost grotesque marriage of Freud and Marx in the video gallery. Meta Gary’s Enterchange depicts the endless loop of earthmoving equipment in late capitalism’s ceaseless logic of demolition and development, as framed in the vaginal opening of a leftover piece of concrete, or more likely one that hasn’t been put in its place yet. Brittainy Lauback’s Hole keeps inserting digits or foamy materials into openings of one sort of another, never quite attaining a perfect match nor truly filling the unappeasable voidness. Patricia Villafane’s multiple-image video of Target and its target-shaped store logo (talk about a center versus a middle!) presents a different sort of unappeasable desire and irremediable deficiency, a process of exchange in which none of the parties can ever be completely satisfied even if the transaction is regarded as open and above reproach.

That leads us, logically I suppose, to Christina Price Washington’s Thoughts on the (excluded) Middle, in which a vague pictorial or non-pictorial image set well below eye level on a movable wall (we learn from her statement that this is a picture of a helium filled balloon) carries a great deal of conceptual and openly philosophical weight along with it. “The privileged position of the isolated photograph” is indeed “destabilized,” and we can’t help (or I can’t, anyway) but think of Max Nordau’s Luftmenschen, people left floating in air by the circumstances of modernity, people whom Rilke characterized in the Duineser Elegien as the “disinherited children to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs”—humans perennially in between times and places. This isn’t, however, Price Washington’s major point, as she finds herself “exploring the photograph as the subject and the information in the making.”

This exploration places Price Washington’s work firmly in the middle between the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, the former being the assertion that a proposition is either true or not true, no other choices available, while the fallacy considers “only limited alternatives...while in fact there is at least one additional option.” (These definitions open to discussion, because Wikipedia.) One could argue productively, if hyperbolically, that in a world of spectra and continua the law of the excluded middle is always already the fallacy of the excluded middle.

That leaves us with Margaret Hiden’s and Trevor Reese’s mysteries, as well as a couple of other in-betweens courtesy of Lauback, who offers a photo of a set of parallel fluorescent tubes that once held a lighted sign but holds one no longer, and that presumably will hold one once again—another product of late capitalism which belongs no longer to what’s been, and not yet to what’s coming. Hiden’s digital recapitulations of damaged slide photographs exist in a space between past and present, if not future, but only if you know what you are looking at—although I suppose one could also make up stories about the obliteration of recorded memory and the role that lack and fragmentation plays in the interpretation of history. In that sense, they are interstitial, neither unambiguous visual documents nor outright fictions.

Trevor Reese’s sculptures, I suppose, exist on the trembling interface between settled history and the shorthand with which we capture or configure it, although his de-wheeled hand truck set in concrete in in storage seems to have made a fairly firm transition from practical instrument for moving things to symbolic monument to the moving of materials. His lava rocks interspersed among existing rocks in the outdoor decor feels more like an unnoticed supplement to an architectural element that could be supplemented indefinitely. (One could, for example, put one or more pieces of old-fashioned public ‘plop art’ on top of the rocks.) Reese’s statement to the effect that “My interest in vernacular architecture and folk psychology is influencing my current thought on literal relationships, the different types created by people and things. I find myself navigating an increasing index of interpersonal and ‘mechanical’ connections” is headed in an extremely productive and correct direction, even if I personally can’t quite get what he’s driving at in his concrete (as it were) metaphors.

That’s about as far as I can push this provisional midpoint. There is just under a week for those who happen to read this non-review right away to go confirm, disconfirm or, preferably, correct and expand upon my intuitions.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Analog Revival Considered as an Occasion for a Seriously Misweighted Consideration of Much, Much More Than That

This is structured after the precedent set by George Steiner in his years of writing book reviews for The New Yorker, wherein the reader would learn, five thousand words into an erudite disquisition on the urgent need to rethink the aesthetic and economic legacy of the Dutch Golden Age, that the review was based on a few paragraphs scattered throughout a book that was primarily about how to plant the right kinds of tulips in your garden. See the footnote herein regarding productive digressions, or analysis terminable and interminable, but mostly interminable.

Following the example set explicitly by Jeff Kripal, after I woke this morning feeling that the essay of yesterday could land me in too much controversy to be worth it, instead of deleting that essay, I wrote another one.

Analog Analogies: Or, Revivals in the Age of Digital Reproduction

There is a reason, other than the simple vagaries of students’ notes, why Wittgenstein’s lectures on art and religious belief are collected in the same thin book. Aesthetic experience and religious experience are both marginal cognitive situations, open to divergent interpretation, even though the subject of the one is typically quite different from the subject of the other. (We leave to one side, or bracket as Husserl would have said, whether what Wittgenstein had to say has any meaning or usefulness, which two things are not the same thing.)

I hope at some point to offer an analytical review of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Comparing Religions, a textbook designed to offer students a useful set of cognitive tools with which to undertake a more comprehensive examination of religious phenomena and religious functions than is usually the case in present-day discussions.

It is indisputably the case that aesthetics and religion always arrive in social contexts, even if the contexts lead people to kill one another over the question of whether the context is part of the prerequisite package.

This was the case long before Bob Dylan’s use of electric instruments brought unfortunately termed cries of betrayal from the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. It has only gotten worse since then, although the fortunate rise of systematic cynicism beginning with the appropriationist art of the 1980s has meant that the largely silent sneers of the terminally hip at the phenomenon of lack of cool has spread far beyond the coffeehouses of the 1950s to encompass a whole culture in which tolerance is largely a matter of studied indifference to foolish opinions about which we could scarcely care less.

So it is a matter of some fascination to note the re-emergence of formerly hip phenomena in new contexts, and sometimes for reasons very nearly opposite to the reasons they were considered hip the first or second time around. The same thing happens in the history of religions, of course, but we shall not here consider the repeated iterations of the religious experiences sprung from the Burned-Over District of western New York.

Rather, we shall consider Chris Fritton’s scheduled appearance on February 15, 3 - 5 p.m., at Atlanta Printmakers Studio. And we shall consider it because Fritton, former studio director of the WNY Book Arts Center, has undertaken a project titled “The Itinerant Printer” as homage to the revival of craft letterpress printing. Letterpress is back, after having been in full flower some forty years ago (partly because letterpress fonts and presses were being discarded by commercial printers, who saw that nobody cared about the physical texture of printed material in an age when even linotype was being replaced by pasted-up photomechanical printouts). But it is back not because of the easy availability of cheap remains of outdated technologies, but because, says Fritton, of the analog revival, of hands-on maker-machine interaction in the age of digital reproduction. (This is not quite the same as the handcraft revival, in which the machines are a few centuries older and in some cases several millennia older. The machines of what I think of as the analog revival—someone please correct my use of the terminology if I’m delimiting it wrongly*—range in age of invention from the Renaissance up to as little as a half century ago.)

Fritton intends to print postcards using the random cuts of images, idiosyncratic typefaces, and other bric-a-brac that clutter letterpress enterprises, thus “reviving a sense of adventure in printing, along with the analog sharing of information.”

It is somehow utterly appropriate that it is possible to track the details of this hundred-venue crosscountry trek at


*I websearched “the analog revival,” in quotation marks, to confirm my vague impression, and very quickly found myself at the threshold of a 2006 book titled Postphenomenology: A Critical Companion to Ihde, an anthology that revealed a philosophical discussion that had gone on for the better part of a decade and apparently is still be going on in a major way, based on Don Ihde’s Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context, which upon its 1995 publication was blurbed as “a fascinating investigation of the relationships between global culture and technology.” The essays by several authors in Postphenomenology, the critical companion (which is not to be confused with Postphenomenology, the Ihde essays), have to do with, among other things, crittercams (“Compounding Eyes in NatureCultures”), embodied health-care practice, “ontology engines,” and other mixtures of real-life tech and real-life metaphors about machines and the persons who inhabit the embodied minds that interact with them. (And I do mean “inhabit”; as Nobby Brown wrote half a century ago, person is persona. Fifty-page digression about everything from the history of religions to currently fashionable gender studies could follow, but will not.)

Although a glance at the “Don Ihde” entry in Wikipedia reveals a whole body of work of which I was unaware, it is so far distant from the original question of why letterpress printing is newly popular that I decided it was time to stop climbing Mount Analog and come back down to base camp.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An essay on aesthetics that may or may not clarify why I have written the kind of art criticism I have written for decades now

This essay comes out of left field, but it does not come out of a vacuum, which would be an environment not very hospitable to left field players. It comes in part out of many years of reviewing art that I felt should be defended passionately even though I often had no personal enthusiasm for it, and another trigger was probably James Elkins’ Facebook post about his upcoming lecture in a general series titled “Failure,” a post in which he says, “I’ll be emphasizing things that don’t work (perhaps never did),” in this case with regard to a still-popular aesthetic theory. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is one of the great untrue statements of all time, but it is untrue only because the words themselves don’t quite fit the phenomena they are meant to describe; their meanings are elastic, but they are not meaningless even if they are slippery enough to give rise to Shakespeare’s memorable aphorism. Linguistic philosophy is not much help here, and perhaps never was, so we might as well start out:

The Festival of Insignificance, or, Trying to Get At the Question of Good Bad Art, and a Good Many Other Elusive or Paradoxical Types of Art, Besides

At the moment when Captain Obvious finally grasps why he will sometimes cross the Atlantic to re-experience a completely unimportant painting or video but has long made it a point to avoid some of the world’s greatest works of art, word comes that an English translation will soon be published of Milan Kundera’s new novel titled The Festival of Insignificance.

That has nothing to do with what follows, except that the probably meandering meditation I am about to write has to do with grasping why insignificant things so often seem more worth celebrating than significant ones, even if we accept the greater significance of the things we find uninteresting.

You can argue, and most arguers do, that “there’s no accounting for taste.” This is equivalent to saying that taste is completely a matter of things that happened to us before we were two years old—if we are irresistibly attracted to or repelled by some currently fashionable sophisticated phenomenon (whether in art, fashion, cuisine, music, movies, whatever), it is a logical development of some pleasurable or traumatic simple experience in early childhood. And thus it is not worth analyzing how our later experiences turned this happy or unhappy moment into our present passionately or casually felt aesthetic position, unless it is somehow going to help us clear up our psychological messes.

Most people don’t think it’s equivalent to that; they just think that aesthetic preferences are too weirdly arbitrary to make sense of, even though they can be pushed in one direction or another if you try hard enough, just as most of us learned to like spinach or rutabagas after a childhood spent detesting them.

The “ingrained preferences” versus the “pushing in one direction” don’t seem to be sufficiently analyzed most of the time. And indeed, a good many preferences seem to be ascribable to quite elementary forces: no matter how we tart them up, our transient “likes” actually come about because everyone else is liking it, or the flavor appeals to the hard-wired inclination towards sweet or salty, or the event turns us on sexually for the ordinary evolutionary reasons that drive us towards reproducing our kind.

But there are so many preferences that are not so ascribable. And these too are ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, because everything human is ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, including our responses to gods and angels if such happen to exist. On that level, anything that happens is natural, but some things happen so infrequently, or lead to such dysfunctional or destructive consequences, that we cannot help but call them unnatural in one case or supernatural in another.

This is a very strange definitional detour to take en route to getting at the phenomenon of “art that’s so bad it’s good,” or of completely unimportant artworks we’ll cross oceans to see again, while we’ll make it a point to avoid the world’s greatest art if there is any way of doing so. This reaction varies according to transitory moods, of course (John Berryman’s line of acedia-laden verse about “literature bores me, especially great literature”) but there must be a combination of psychological and neurological underpinnings to this that are also based in the way the world itself works—the objective environmental structures that have resulted in our responses surviving instead of the responses mostly killed off in previous generations of our particular lineage, even though they survive robustly in other particular lineages wending their way through the world.

It would be good if we could get to the point of being able to argue out the dimensions and meaning of that general insight, if we can ever agree that it is an insight; we are always going to have to disagree about whether culture or nature plays the greater role in all this, because sometimes it is one, and sometimes it is the other, even in the same person at almost the same moment.

At a certain level of self-awareness, I can make a rational argument that an artwork has what they used to call “significant form”—that the component parts of the aesthetic machinery function together with enormous and consistent complexity—but that I hate everything about it. I can also confess that although some artworks have no redeeming aesthetic qualities, I love them anyway, because I’m just that kind of guy. (That’s the phenomenon of which we can say we probably don’t want to go there, to use the idiom we apply to “not wanting to delve too deeply into causation in this particular case.” See also: the general problem of “fast and slow thinking,” and why there are cases in which there is no point in trying to swap one for the other, although it is worth considering why there is no point in doing so.)

Hence it would be really interesting to approach the development or refinement of aesthetic taste in terms of expanding the range of consistent aesthetic operations to which we respond positively. (Historically it has been a matter of replacing one set of preferred operations with another, or narrowing the number of operations to which we respond, instead of learning new ways of evaluating the success of the operations. This is not a good thing, in my view. Neither is the unreflective assumption that there is no way to evaluate sets of operations and one set is as good as another. Indoctrination and indifferent relativism both suck.) There are an immense number of consistent operations, and it is what allows us to argue over whether a graffiti wall is a good one or a bad one at the same time that we argue over whether an example of Japanese calligraphy is successful or unsuccessful, or over why some kitsch is unendurably awful on all fronts while other kitsch has such intriguing underlying compositional elements that it is actually worth keeping around us in spite of being appallingly sentimental or exploitative of stereotypes. (In such cases we do have to keep our wits about us to avoid being pulled helplessly into the responses to which evolution predisposes us. Incidentally, it is interesting that in this year’s lingo we would probably just say “because evolution,” which is a locution that is used both for things that are too obvious to be worth spelling out and things that are too complicated to spell out without completely losing your train of thought.)

E. H. Gombrich floundered around on the edges of such questions, but that was an awfully long time ago, and the floundering was immense. The few books that have been written more recently on such problems of causation, or even of straightening out our systematically misleading terminology and categories for such problems, have been as unreadable, and mostly as wrongheaded, as this essay most likely is.

But hey, I had to write it anyway.